MADRID/ROME: Venezuelan expatriates began voting in hundreds of cities worldwide on Sunday in a unofficial plebiscite that aims to challenge President Nicolas Maduro and his plans to rewrite the constitution.
With improvised polling stations in more than 80 countries, Venezuelan expatriates are predicted to turn out in force for the vote, which comes amid three months of anti-government protests that have led to nearly 100 deaths.
Protesters say Maduro is seeking to consolidate a dictatorship in the oil-rich nation and must be stopped before critical food and medicine shortages worsen.
The symbolic vote is designed to preempt official elections on July 30 to call a constituent assembly, which will be able to rewrite the constitution and dissolve state institutions.
The non-binding vote, called by the opposition-controlled legislature, the National Assembly, will ask Venezuelans three questions: if they reject the constitutional assembly, if they want the armed forces to defend the existing constitution and if they want elections before Maduro's term in office ends in 2018.
In central Madrid, where several high profile critics of the government are among the 30,000 Venezuelans expected to cast their ballot throughout the day, volunteers manned polling stations amid a festive atmosphere.
Mitzy Capriles, wife of former Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma who is currently in prison in Venezuela on charges of conspiracy, said that Venezuelan expatriates were united in rejecting the current government.
"With this (vote) we are telling Nicolas Maduro once again that he is the cause of the problems facing the country today," Ledezma told reporters after casting her vote in Madrid.
In Rome, Leopoldo Lopez Gil, father of prominent opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez who was recently released to house arrest following mass protests, said the peaceful nature of the vote was in contrast to violence used by the government in Venezuela.
"Today we are gathering peacefully to send a clear message that (the Venezuelan government) needs to listen ... and to open its eyes and see what is happening and what the people of Venezuela want," Lopez told reporters.
In Madrid, Audrey Lopez, 49, was among volunteers staffing the polling station and has lived in Spain for 10 years.
"I haven't been back to Venezuela in 4 years. What I save on the journey I send to my family in food, medicine or hygiene products because they are either very expensive or non-existent there," she said.
"With this vote we want to say to Maduro that Venezuela can't wait. We want elections now. The people want him out."
Carlos Morazzani, a 50-year-old engineer who came to Spain three years ago after his company failed, said most Venezuelans rejected plans to overhaul the constitution.
"The great majority of Venezuelans are against the government," he said. "Venezuela is being held hostage by 10 or 15 percent of the country."
A recent survey by pollster Datanalisis found 67 percent of Venezuelans oppose the new assembly to rewrite the constitution, which was reformed by late leader Hugo Chavez in 1999.
(Writing by Sam Edwards, editing by David Evans)